State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 67 Autumn 2001


Folio 1v from the Calendar of Vigils of the Dead (Besançon, c. 1440-50). State Library of Victoria. Call no. *096/R66Hm.


An Essay on Printing in Gold


Nothing Fascinates like gold: it is an age-old and universal obsession. Indeed, a recent social history of the metal is entitled The Power of Gold: the history of an obsession (Bernstein, 2000). The uses of gold are myriad — jewellery and other decorative arts, coinage, industrial — and it is often used as a hedge against more speculative forms of wealth such as real estate and, now, shares. A civilisation is characterised by its use of gold, namely, the golden ram from Sir Leonard Woolley's Ur, Tutankhamen's golden casket (weighing a massive 110 kilograms of pure gold), the so-called mask of Agamemnon from Mycenae of the Homeric Age. One might argue that the gold illuminated initial is as much the characteristic artefact of medieval Europe as the cathedral.
The use of gold (or silver) leaf in medieval manuscripts is well known. However, leaf was rarely used to form the letter, rather it was used to highlight or ‘illuminate’ an initial or miniature — hence the description ‘illumination’. Gold could also be used in a liquid form — called ‘shell gold’ because it was held in an oyster or mussel shell when being used. By this method, powdered or flaked gold is mixed with a gum arabic into a gold ink, which can then be applied with a pen or brush (De Hamel 1992: 57-61). Shell gold was often used to write text, as is well illustrated by the calendar from the State Library of Victoria's Vigils of the Dead (Besançon, c. 1440-50).


It is not surprising that, following the invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century, printers imitated many of the features of illuminated manuscripts. Gold continued to be used in printed books, in traditional ways as gold leaf and gold paint, but also in new ways as printed gold text and ornaments. At least two printers developed a method for printing in gold, the German Erhard Ratdolt and the Cretan Zacharias Callierges. The following very brief account of Ratdolt, Callierges and their methods comes from a longer paper written by Victor Carter, Lotte Hellinga and Tony Parker (Carter, Hellinga and Parker, 1983).
Ratdolt was an innovator, responsible for producing the first mathematical book with illustrations — Euclid's Elementa, completed 25 May 1482. Technical illustration was a particular problem for early printers, and Ratdolt decided to celebrate his achievement by dedicating his work to the Doge of Venice. Moreover, the dedication letter in some copies of the Elementa was also printed in gold. After returning to his home city of Augsburg, Ratdolt repeated this effort in an edition of János Thuróczy's Chronica Hungariae, completed 3 June 1488. The National Museum, Budapest, has two copies of this work, both on vellum and both with the preface printed in gold.
Zacharias Callierges was also an innovator, who developed one of the most elegant of the early Greek typefaces. Callierges further highlighted his beautiful type by printing a number of books with ornamental borders and initials printed in gold: the Etymologicon Magnum Graecum (8 July 1499); Ammonius Hermeas, Commentarii in quinque voces Porphyrii (23 May 1500); and Simplicius, Hypomnemata in Aristotelis categorias (26 Oct. 1499).
Close analysis of the above five examples of printing in gold has led to suggestions that both Ratdolt and Callierges used the following techniques. The type is set and locked into the chase as usual. (It is worth noting here that the above examples are certainly printed and not painted, as is the case with some other fifteenth-century books.) The sheet of vellum or paper is dusted with a powdered adhesive, perhaps rosin or dried egg-white. The type is then heated slightly, perhaps with iron bars and the gold leaf is laid on the surface of the type. Gold leaf clings readily to metal surfaces. Next, the type is pressed onto the vellum. The heat in the type melts the adhesive and the gold is taken up where the type touches the vellum. Superfluous gold is brushed off. It is thought that a printing press could not be used for printing in gold: because the paper is placed in the frisket and moves through the vertical down onto the type, it would lose its powdered adhesive. Rather, a bookbinding press might have been used, allowing the powdered sheet to be flat and still, receiving its golden impression from the type above.
The process described above, and especially the use of a bookbinding press, must have made the process of printing in gold very time-consuming. So, it is not surprising that only a small number of de luxe copies of books by Ratdolt and Callierges included pages printed in gold. It also explains why after the fifteenth century printing in gold continued to be infrequent.


In the three centuries following the work of Ratdolt and Callierges, there are a few hints that printing in gold was practiced intermittently. Joseph Moxon in his Mechanick Exercises (1683) described a technique for printing only a few words at a time in gold.
¶ 18. Of Printing with Gold and Silver.
This Operation is seldom used but for Printing Names; and therefore rarely drest in a Form to the Press; but is usually Printed in the Stick: And then the Compositer Justifies his Stick very Hard, as well that the Letters fall not out when the Back of the Stick is turned upwards, as that the strength of the Hard Varnish the Face of the Letter is Beat with, pulls not the Letter out of the Stick.
Therefore the Press-man makes two little Balls, by tying about an Handful of Wooll in new clean Leather, and dabs one of his Balls upon the Hardest Varnish he has, and with the other destributes his Varnish to a convenient Fatness, as he did his Balls in £12. With one of these Balls he Beats the Name; and having his Paper Wet, he lays a single Blanket on the Correcting-stone, and his Paper on the Blanket; and with a Riglet fitted to the Stick, he
presses the Letter to keep it straight in Line: Then places the Face of the Letter exactly flat down upon the Paper, and with the force of both his Hands presses the Letter hard and even down upon the Paper, to receive an Impression: But he takes care not to wriggle the Letter in the Stick backwards or forwards, lest either the Beard Print, or the sides of the Letter be more or less besmeared with the Varnish: Because the Gold or Silver will stick to the least Sully that the Varnish may chance to make.
Then cutting his Gold or Silver to a size full big enough to cover the Printed Name or Matter, he lays his Gold or Silver on what was Printed, and with a little White Cotton gently presses the Gold or Silver upon the Printed Matter, and lets the Paper lye by a while; as well that it may dry, as the Varnish Harden, (which will quickly be) he with his Handkerchief gently wipes over the Printed Matter. So shall all the Gold and Silver that was toucht by the Varnish, stick to the Varnish on the Paper, and the other will wipe away.
If he lists to Polish it, he uses a Tooth or the Ivory Handle of a Knife. (Moxon, 1683)
Moxon's is quite a different technique to that used by Ratdolt and Callierges. Instead of a powdered adhesive being sprinkled on the sheet, a varnish is applied to the type and impressed onto the sheet. Gold leaf is then laid on the printed varnish and the excess rubbed away with the printer's cotton handkerchief.
Apart from Moxon, there are some instances of printing in gold at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1996 David R. Whitesell, of Richard C. Ramer Old Books, referred to a book printed in Pueblo de los Angelos (Mexico) in 1770, with the title page printed in red and overprinted in gold (e-mail communication to SHARP discussion list, 4 January 1996). At the same time, another bookseller, Gilbert Bennett, claimed to have seen a pamphlet printed at Foligno in 1796 with the title page in gold (e-mail communication to SHARP discussion list, 5 June 1996).


The technique described by Moxon, and perhaps used in a few eighteenth-century examples, is very close to the gold-blocking techniques used by bookbinders. And, in fact, it is the Westminster bookbinder John Whittaker who, in the early nineteenth century, produced a series of magnificent celebratory works printed in gold. The first was a de luxe edition of the Magna Carta, proposed by Whittaker in 1815 in celebration of the charter's 600th anniversary. Although existing copies of the work are dated 1816 (and the supplementary Covenant of the Barons, 1818), there is evidence that Whittaker produced the work on demand well into the 1820s.
This on-demand publishing may also explain why each copy is different. There are surviving copies on paper, purple silk and natural vellum: cream silk and purple vellum may also have been used. The number of leaves varies. The basic copy printed on a thick paper card consists of 12 leaves — title and 11 leaves of text. De luxe copies might also include a dedication leaf, frontispiece, the Covenant of the Barons, a list of the Barons. There were various sizes: a Library of Congress copy on vellum measures 51 × 39.5 cms, but a copy on purple silk only 44 × 35 cms (Friend, 1944, Windle, 1995). Finally, the programme of illustration might be more or less complex. Paper copies
were relatively unadorned, but de luxe copies on vellum or silk might contain a miniature of King John and the Barons, a painted coat of arms on the frontispiece, and decorated borders and tinctured arms of the Barons throughout. The decoration is thought to be after designs by Thomas Willement, the King's heraldic artist, and executed by the artist John Harris jun. (Thomson, 1829, Windle, 1995). Of course, the customer paid dearly for such de luxe production: paper copies cost £10, but a super de luxe copy might cost several hundred pounds (Lowndes, 1834, Brunet, 1860-65). Sales in recent years show that Whittaker's Magna Carta has lost none of its aura and appeal: John Windle of San Francisco has advertised one on purple silk for $12,500 and one on natural vellum for $20,000 (John Windle Antiquarian Books, 1995 and 1999).
Two other examples of printing in gold by Whittaker are the Speech of His Royal Highness the Duke of York, In the House of Lords, April 25, 1825 (London, 1825) and The Ceremonial of the Coronation of His Most Sacred Majesty, King George the Fourth (London, 1822).

Detail showing medallion of Queen Victoria, from the front page of the Coronation Sun, the London Sun, 28 June 1838, celebrating the coronation of the young Queen. Newspaper Collection, State Library of Victoria.



Thomas De La Rue was typical of the generation of entrepreneurs and innovators that characterised Britain early in the nineteenth century. He started out life as an apprentice printer on the isle of Guernsey, but soon came to London to make straw hats and embossed paper bonnets. When this fashion passed he entered the card and fancy goods trade, where he developed several new printing inks and a method of embossing binder's cloth and paperhangings. In 1851 De La Rue was recognised by the trade when he was made joint reporter on Class XVI: Paper, Printing and Bookbinding at the Great Exhibition. He died in 1866. (Bigmore and Wyman, 1880-1886: 159-60)
De La Rue was responsible for at least two examples of printing in gold. The first was a New Testament, printed in 1834 in gold and enamelled by De La Rue, James, and Rudd, for Adolphus Richter of London. This extraordinary book is described as being almost 30 cms in height and consisting of 346 pages. The use of gold and the enamelling of the pages resulted in a book weighing an RSI-inducing five kilograms! The print-run of such a de luxe item was almost certainly very small: the book is very rare today, no copies being known in Australia. (Herbert, 1968: 381, no. 1805)
The Coronation Sun was another of De La Rue's forays into printing in gold. The London Sun of the 28 June 1838 was a splendid production, celebrating the coronation of the young Queen Victoria. The editor introduced the special issue with appropriate enthusiasm:
Our Journal of this day commemorates the Coronation of her MAJESTY, by appearing in a golden dress. We claim little more merit for this splendid specimen of the united arts of engraving and printing, than having most diligently exerted ourselves to lay it before our readers. To the great ingenuity of the firm De La RUE and Co., to the perseverance and exertions of Messrs. CLOWES and Son, to the great skill of Mr. EDWARD LYON, the modeller, and to the talents of one of the first engravers of the age — to all these gentlemen combined we are indebted for the great beauty which our journal this day exhibits, (p. 2, col. 1)
Apart from the golden dress of the type, the issue also reproduced a large, splendid wood engraving of a medallion head of the queen, modelled by Edward Lyon and engraved by an anonymous engraver.
The special issue was a runaway success. Indeed, it drew unconditional praise from the Sun's three main rivals, the Morning Chronicle, the Morning Post and the Morning Herald. The issue was so popular that the initial print-run could not satisfy the demand. It had to be reserved for subscribers only. The extent of the demand is indicated by the editor's sanguine hopes:
… the Public at large must have patience with us. By Saturday, we hope to continue our publication, and from time forward we shall be ready to answer all the immense demand, already far exceeding our expectation, and amounting to nearly a quarter of a million, which may be made. (my emphasis)
A second issue, printed in red, was available on the following Sunday, the 1st July, and then a so-called ‘2d Edition’, this time printed in gold, came out on Friday, the 6th July. The State Library of Victoria does not have a copy of the first issue, but does have a copy of each of the 2nd issue in red and the ‘2d Edition’ in gold. It is from the latter that the illustration for this article is reproduced.
Before continuing, it must be admitted that the description of the type as ‘golden’ is somewhat misleading. The State Library's copy of the ‘2d Edition’ has been marked by a small spill of some kind. (Not whisky, as Marcus Clarke, the former sub-librarian and well-known imbiber, was long in his grave by the time the ‘2d Edition’ came to the Library in 1897.) Whatever the liquid spilt, it has turned the ‘golden’ ink green, the colour of the patina on copper and brass. The ink, then, certainly has a copper base. For more on the materials and methods used by De La Rue, we are indebted to an extraordinary letter to the editor of the Medical Gazette (and reprinted in the Times, 8 November 1838) from Gurney Turney, MRCS. The following extensive extract reveals an occupational health and safety nightmare.
Sir,—Should the accompanying case appear worthy of being recorded, I would beg as a favour its insertion in the Medical Gazette, not being aware that any person as yet noticed this affection, which may perhaps be as novel as its cause, viz., the printing of Golden Sun newspapers!
July 17th, John Oakley, aet. 19, a lad of pale, scrofulous complexion, applied at this institution for relief of a most distressing itching of the scrotum, and was admitted under the care of Mr. Caswell, whom I have to thank for his kindness in permitting me to supply the notes of this case.
On examining the part, it seemed relaxed and inflamed, the sebaceous follicles considerably enlarged, and round the roots of the hairs were small scabs, caused by his scratching the part, to relieve the tingling sensation. The hair on the scrotum and pubes was of a decided grass green colour, and though the irritation resembles that produced by the pediculus pubis, I could discover none of these vermin or their ova.
On inquiry the lad referred these symptoms to his occupation at a newspaper-office, being engaged in printing the Golden Sun paper — so named from its golden type. It appears this hue is communicated by brushing a fine bronze-coloured powder (composed, according to the workmen's account, of copperas, verdigris, and quicksilver) over the type, which is first printed in yellow ink. This powder is given to those employed in ounce packets, and about 40 hands were thus employed, almost all of whom had been forced after a time to give up this work, some keeping at it only two days; others for a week or more; but all suffering more or less from its effects.
The hair on his head and in the axilla was of the same colour, and he complained of itching in these parts, and about the wrists, though in a degree, and the hair felt peculiarly harsh, dry, and matted.
He stated that on the third day of being thus employed, he had been seized with vomiting of a greenish-coloured fluid, and a sensation of heat and constriction in the oesophagus, with pain in the stomach, which he referred to swallowing and inhaling portions of the powder diffused through the air of the room: this was followed by epistaxis, recurring at intervals, itching of the before-mentioned parts, more especially of the pubes and scrotum, tenderness of the epigastrium and bowels, accompanied by loss of appetite and rest…
26th.- He returned quite well, but still with the hair on his pubes, scrotum, and head quite green, though gradually fading away. Ordered to continue his medicine, and return in a week, using in the meantime common pomatum to the hair, to soften it and remove its harsh wiry character…
This case having excited my curiosity, I asked and obtained permission to see the process of printing these papers. They are printed with a yellow ink, composed of size and gamboge, and then handed over to men who, with a common hat-brush, distribute the powder over the paper, which adheres to the moist printed portions. About a dozen persons were thus engaged when I visited the office, all of whom complained more or less of the same symptoms. Some added, that this irritating powder had caused deep ulcers on the genitals; others declaring it had salivated them to a certain extent; but though their gums appeared slightly spongy, thay hardly seemed more so than those of most persons whose stomachs are out of order; and I could not detect any mercurial foetor.
I wished much to be allowed to have a portion of this powder for chymical examination, but my request could not be granted, as its composition is kept a secret. I was told it was prepared in Germany; it looked like very fine brass filings; the whole air of the room was loaded with it, and my coat glistened, as also did my face and hair, which rivalled in brightness the wig of Caligula, who had recourse to gold-dust to produce the effect I obtained so cheaply.
Poor John Oakley probably never set foot in a printing house again, but De La Rue almost certainly continued to use bronze powders for printing his fancy stationery. Perhaps it was in his workshop that a number of Victorian printers learnt the technique.


There is no need to explain to readers of The La Trobe Journal the impact of the gold rushes on Victorian society. Printing in gold was one very minor aspect of this ‘golden age’ — a means by which printers could show off both their own skills and their town's accomplishments. However, printing in gold was not common in colonial Victoria, the first known example being from 1861. An issue of the North Western Chronicle (later the Talbot Leader) was printed in gold on silk for the Victorian Exhibition of 1861 (Catalogue, 1861: p. 264):
393. Bateman, Clark, and Co., Back Creek.-Copy of North Western Chronicle, printed in gold on white silk. Ex.
A copy has not survived, but we get a bit more information from the paper itself. A public meeting was held at Back Creek to consider what the district might contribute to the exhibition. The meeting resolved to hold a local exhibition at the shire hall (entrance fee 6d.) and to pass on the best exhibits. By the end of September, some 18 exhibits had been chosen. (Among the many natural history specimens and local manufactures was a hair ball, seven inches in diameter, from the stomach of a bullock!) By early December the newspaper was recording the local prize winners — Mr Schlieblich for a gigantic mass of soap ‘which formed a by no means uninteresting
feature of the local show’. The newspaper proprietors appear a little disappointed that their own contribution has been passed over: ‘As our Melbourne correspondent does not state in his telegram last night any other special notice of our contributions, we conclude that the above are the only contributions thus noticed’ (North Western Chronicle, 13 and 27 September, and 6 December 1861).
The Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866 provided another opportunity for printers to highlight their products, and so the small town of Tarnagulla in Victoria's north-west decided to make a splash.
In the approaching Exhibition, this locality will stand a very fair show. Our ‘habitation and name’ will be set forth by a number of photographic views and a banner; besides which our mineral resources will be reprinted… Mr. Minto is now in Melbourne attending to the laying out of the exhibits.
Apart from the rather ephemeral presence at the Exhibition, the local paper decided to produce something of more lasting merit. Convinced of the need to combine Art with Commerce,
‘Art as the handmaid of commerce,
Is unmistakeably the great civilizer’ (p. 2, col. 2)
the proprietors of the Tarnagulla Courier printed at least one, possibly more, of its issues of a special Exhibition Number in gold! — the source of the town's wealth and prosperity:
… the Golden Village owes its rise entirely — its present position, and its future prospects -to this company, which have nothing to recommend them besides energy, enterprise, and gold, the foundation of the village. (Supplement, p. 2)
Moreover, the Exhibition Number includes two original photographs of Commercial Street, Tarnagulla. The issue, then, is a ‘virtual’ exhibition stand, boosting the prospects of the township. But, being in print, it has survived in the collections of the State Library as a reminder of the hopes (not to say pretensions) of a frontier mining town in the 1860s.
The Exhibition Number itself is printed on paper. There are six pages, including the standard four-page broadsheet (60.5 × 45.5 cm), plus a two-page supplement. The content is mainly of local interest — produce markets, council meetings and elections, police court, mining news — taken straight from the standard issue of 6 October 1866. The supplement is pure boosterism, exalting the merits of Tarnagulla, Newbridge and Llanelly in three substantial essays.
The golden type of the Exhibition Number is not, in fact, gold. Close inspection reveals that the paper has been printed with standard printer's ink, which has then been lightly dusted with a fine bronze powder. (The bronze powder has reacted with the ink and turned it blue in parts.) This is precisely the method used by De La Rue for his golden Coronation Sun in 1838, except that De La Rue used a varnish or clear adhesive instead of printer's ink.
A second example of printing in gold from the 1866 exhibition was the Avoca Mail for 6 October 1866, got up in the same way as the Tarnagulla Courier, i.e., with bronze powders, except that the Mail is slightly more de luxe, having been printed on silk:
Our issue this week contains a concise narrative of the past history of Avoca (published by request), two copies of which will be printed in gold on white silk, and forwarded to the Intercolonial and Paris Universal Exhibitions.
One of these two copies is now to be found in the State Library of Victoria.
The third and final example of printing in gold from the 1866 exhibition was the Castlemaine Advertiser. Unfortunately, no example survives, and the following information comes from the Catalogue (1866, p. 33, nos. 1025 and 1033). ‘W.R.M.’, the newspaper's proprietor, claimed that the exhibition number was “printed in colonial gold leaf” — and to this extent was “the first paper of its kind got up in the colonies”. If gold leaf was used rather than bronze powder, then the printing technique must have resembled that of Ratdolt/Callierges, Moxon, and Whittaker.
By the 1870s printing with bronze powders and inks to give a golden effect was common on fancy stationery. However, a large morocco leather-bound volume in the State Library contains about 100 newspapers presented to the 1872 Victorian Exhibition. Here we find two more examples of newspapers printed in gold — the Heathcote Examiner and Rodney Independent for 11 April 1872 and the Buninyong Telegraph for 12 April. The Telegraph was a four-page broadsheet printed in blue on pages one and four and in gold on two and three. The Examiner was a four-page tabloid entirely printed in gold.


As they say, “space is the final frontier”. Though not strictly ‘printed in gold’, the two audio disks attached to Voyagers 1 and 2 are the modern equivalent (Sagan 1978, and NASA 2001). Voyagers 1 and 2 were launched in 1978. Their primary purpose was to investigate the planets beyond Mars, after which both craft would exit the Solar System (in 1990) and journey into deep space. With a view to communicating with intelligent life beyond our Solar System, NASA attached a 12-inch audio disk to each craft — a copper disk coated with gold. Visual instructions explain how the disk is to be played, and the content consists of natural sounds (surf, wind, thunder, etc.), a musical selection (including two Aboriginal songs), spoken greetings in 55 languages (not including ‘G'day’) and a selection of images (including the Sydney Opera House and Herron Island). As Carl Sagan said of the project, “The launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet”.
From our point of view, the Voyager records are another example of communication ‘in a golden dress’.
Brian Hubber


  • Peter Bernstein (2000), The Power of Gold: the history of an obsession, John Wiley, New York.

  • E. C. Bigmore and C. W. H. Wyman (1880-1886), A Bibliography of Printing: with notes and illustrations, Quaritch, London.

  • Jacques-Charles Brunet (1860-1865), Manuel du libraire et de l'amateur de livres, 5th ed., Librairie de Firmin Didot Freres, Paris.

  • Victor Carter, Lotte Hellinga and Tony Parker (1983), ‘Printing with Gold in the Fifteenth Century’, British Library Journal, vol. 9, pp. 1-13.

  • Catalogue (1861), Catalogue of the Victorian Exhibition, 1861, John Ferres, Government Printer, Melbourne.

  • Catalogue (1866), Intercolonial Exhibition, 1866. Official Catalogue, Printed for the Commissioners by Blundell and Ford, Melbourne.

  • Christopher De Hamel (1992), Scribes and Illuminators, British Library, London.

  • William L. Friend (1944), ‘The Magna Carta in Gold’, Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions, vol. 1 no. 4, April-June.

  • A. S. Herbert (1968), Historical Catalogue of Printed Editions of the English Bible 1525-1961, revised and expanded from the edition of T. H. Darlow and H. F. Moule, 1903, The British and Foreign Bible Society, London.

  • William Thomas Lowndes (1834), The Bibliographer's Manual of English Literature: containing an account of rare, curious and useful books published in or relating to Great Britain and Ireland, William Pickering, London.

  • Joseph Moxon (1683), Mechanick Exercises: or, The Doctrine of Handy-Works. Applied to the Art of Printing. The Second Volumne. Printed for Joseph Moxon, London.

  • NASA (2001), ‘Voyager Project Home Page’, ≪≫, 8 May 2001.

  • Carl Sagan et al. (1978), Murmurs of Earth: the Voyager interstellar record, New York, Random House.

  • Richard Thomson (1829), An Historical Essay on the Magna Carta of King John, printed for John Major and Robert Jennings, London.

  • John Windle Antiquarian Bookseller (1995), List 25, San Francisco.

  • Ibid (1999), List 30, San Francisco.